We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. First up, Mark Rapoza contemplates our unending curiosity with nature, illustrated by your photos.
Stepping out of an Islington flat late one summer night during my first visit to London, I could have focused on any number of things. The hum of a train approaching nearby Kings Cross, the texture of the uneven pavement beneath my shoes, or the flash of headlights from a cab as it rounded the corner. There were innumerable contenders that night vying for my senses, but one of them stood a head above the rest; ironically it was the quietist and most reserved.
Standing there under a lonely lamp in the middle of Bingfield Park, about 10 or 15 meters in front of me, was a single red fox. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t making a sound, yet it instantly captured my attention. I was absolutely transfixed and even after the fox lost interest and gracefully dissolved back into the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Inquiring about the fox with friends and neighbours the following morning revealed that I wasn’t alone in my interest. Whether they considered them a blessing or a scourge, it seemed like everyone had something to say about London’s urban foxes and our conversations inevitably led to discussions of other natural curiosities.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Nature has a way of consistently captivating us: of grasping some intangible part of our person and filling us with wonder. As a species, we humans all seem to experience some intrinsic need to connect with and explore nature. We spend countless hours in zoos, aquaria and natural history museums. We are consistently distracted at work by wildlife photos trickling through our social media feeds. We collectively love spending some time outdoors; even the most industrialised urbanites among us still appreciate at least some vestige of nature through houseplants, pets or rooftop gardens.
But why? After all, we have essentially spent the past 12,000 or so years since the rise of agriculture building civilisations which have progressively sought to distance themselves from nature, with walls, pavements, HVAC, etc. Why should we care about the natural world and why do we all feel that same persistent sense of curiosity when it comes to nature?
Behavioural studies suggest our curiosity with the world around us exists for purposes which ultimately translate into some benefit in terms of evolutionary fitness. While that is almost certainly part of the story, researchers admit that it is not a complete explanation. Many of the same studies indicate that though our interests may initially be motivated by practical concerns, at some point we become beautifully enamoured with things purely for the sake of knowing more about them.
As Ernst Mach once put it:
“the first questions are formed upon the intention of the inquirer by practical considerations; the subsequent ones are not. An irresistible attraction draws him to these; a nobler interest which far transcends the mere needs of life.“
In that regard, nature provides an ideal catalyst for our sustained exploration. There is far more to be learned about the natural world than can be learned in a lifetime and we are perpetually driven by our need to explain what we find in it.
Nature is also accessible. There are no prerequisites for exploring it and anyone can be a naturalist. Furthermore, nature communicates with us through a language that transcends nationality, creed, education, etc. and our curious fixations with nature are not age dependent either. As children we capture insects in jars and share our discoveries with friends; as we mature, that foundational interest persists. In fact, many of us still find ourselves putting insects in jars well into adulthood, only at that point we call our collections “museums” and generally embark on our explorations more systematically.
All that aside, there is perhaps a deeper, more philosophical element to what draws us to nature: that “subtle magnetism” mentioned by Thoreau in Walden. Perhaps at some primal, unconscious and uncontrollable level, we recognise that we have become separated in many ways from the majestic natural world that ushered us into existence and we long to reconnect. We are perhaps envious to some degree when we see a group of birds at our backyard feeder and wish that we too could fly back into the wild alongside them, free of our self-prescribed civilised obligations.
Thus, I think our curiosity with nature is, in part, a symptom of some evolutionary homesickness. We look at nature and remember, if only for a moment, where we came from and when we stare into the beautiful amber eyes of a fox in a London park, we do so in the knowledge that staring back at us is a part of ourselves.
Mark Rapoza is a naturalist living in California and is the author of the natural history blog, Corner of the Cabinet.
See all the #HumanNature photographs submitted by the public.